Cycling in Croatia

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Hubs and I recently returned from our first cycling holiday. We spent five glorious days tackling challenging climbs along the Croatian coastline, from island-to-island, starting in Split and ending in Dubrovnik.

When we finally landed in Split, 17 hours after leaving Toronto, we discovered that two pieces of luggage were missing, likely due to the short flight connection times out of Frankfurt. Our driver helped us speak to the Lost & Found representative at Split airport. I could only hope for the best, and I was glad that we arrived a day and a half before the cycling trip started. I could sense hubby’s unease as the majority of our cycling gear was in the lost luggage. To make matters worse, as soon as we arrived at our lovely boutique hotel, torrential rains started, and of course our rain coats were also in the lost luggage. As soon as the rain let up, we headed out for dinner and we started to make a plan in the event that our bags didn’t arrive.

We had decided not to set our alarm for the next morning because we were so exhausted. The only mandatory thing on our agenda was to find some shorts for hubs. Luckily I had a pair of his under padded shorts, so at least we would not have to seek out proper cycling shorts for him. I had already emailed our Backroads leaders the night before to let them know our situation, and that we may need them to provide pedals and saddles. When I opened my eyes at 9:30 that morning, I decided to find out what the breakfast situation was. We were staying at Priuli Luxury Rooms, which has five rooms. (Tip: book directly to get a 10% discount).

When I opened our door, there was nobody at reception, but I saw hubby’s suitcase! I wheeled it into our room and quietly woke hubs up. Just as he was putting on his glasses, the young woman working the front desk knocked at our open door and was carrying our second piece of luggage! With a huge smile, I thanked her, and she quickly offered to prepare croissants and coffee for us. How incredibly lucky we were to get our luggage so quickly! When I opened the curtains, the sun was shining bright, and I that was the moment that I knew this was going to be a special trip.

Our day was spent walking around the Old Town and Diocletian’s Palace. We would soon discover that every place we visited had an Old Town (Stari Grad). The palace was not what I had expected. It’s filled with shops and restaurants when I was expecting it to be more museum-like. I did love the old world charm, with the white marble floors and white limestone walls. We stopped at Uje Oil Bar for lunch, based on the suggestion from the receptionist at Priuli. The local olive oils were good. I liked the flavour of my lamb and bean soup; however, the lamb pieces were under-cooked and only luke warm.

After lunch, we decided to hike the Marjan (MAR-yahn) Peninsula. We climbed all the stairs to reach the terrace, which offered a 360-degree view of Split. Afterwards, we felt it would be wise to walk to Hotel Park, the meeting place for our cycling tour. Although it is not terribly far from our hotel, it could be challenging to walk with all our of luggage. We decided that a taxi would be our best option.

When we arrived at Hotel Park the next morning, we were warmly greeted by Jerica and Bradley, one of trip leaders and the van leader. Our group of 13 comprised of us (Canadians), 5 Brazilians, and 6 Mexicans. We boarded a private boat and sailed for 1.5 hours to the Island of Brač. I admit that this is not how I wanted to start my trip. Boats aren’t my thing, though I managed to survive all the boat rides with practically no seasickness. While we were in Croatia, the waters were generally very calm. Of course we did hit a some rough waters, but as long as I focused on land, or closed my eyes, I was fine. During this ride, Jerica took the opportunity to explain things to us, and gave us a general overview of how the coming days would unfold. Reviewing the elevation graphs provided in our welcome pack, my original apprehension returned. Could I manage these climbs? Will I be the first to get in the van? Would I be the slowest rider?

As we approached Brač, we spotted the Backroads van and a new face. Jenna, our second trip leader, was standing at the docking area waving to us. As we waited for the captain to let us off, Jenna reached over and shook our hands and greeted us. Our bikes were all leaning against the wall of the waterside cafe. A nice spread of prosciutto, cheese, olives, bread, and juice and water were waiting for us even though a large selection of snacks were laid out for us on the boat. This selection of snacks would follow us each day, and we were all encouraged to fill our Ziplock with as much as we needed. This is how Backroads received the reputation as Snackroads. They definitely ensure that you are never hungry.

Jenna helped us to put on our saddles and attached our pedals. With a few tweaks, both hubs and I felt comfortable on our titanium bikes. These bikes that were provided by Backroads are excellent for this type of tour. They are light but durable. Our only complaint was that the wheels did not roll very fast so we could not fly down the downhills as fast as we could if we were on our own bikes. In a way, I was ok with this because it meant that I didn’t have to ride the brakes at all, which is both mentally and physically tiring. The reason for needing to brake is because of all the switchbacks. Perhaps a pro rider could take these turns fast, but if I don’t slow down there is a good chance I will take the turn too wide, and the roads are narrow enough.

Before departure, we always had a route wrap session, where Jenna and Jerica would hand out the turn-by-turn directions, and walk us through the ride and pointing out where the bigger climbs would be, and where the pick-up stops would be. This first ride only had one big hill, right at the start to get our legs warmed up. Hubs and I were the last to leave the cafe, so that added some internal stress as I was climbing the hill trying to catch up to the group. Throughout the coming days, I learned some things about my riding style such as my ability to climb hills. I can do it (!) as long as I maintain a steady pace and ensure that I am breathing steadily and calmly. I tend to pant, but the rhythm of my panting forces me to pay attention to my pace. The other thing I learned and was proud of by the end of the trip was that no matter how much of a head start the rest of the group had, my slow and steady pace up those hills would allow me to pass all of them at some point during a climb. Of course, if the group was made up of serious riders, I would probably still be at the back, but I’m so proud of myself for being able to make it up the hills. My initial fears were unfounded.

Our first lunch stop was great. We were greeted with homemade grappa, and a very hearty meal. This set the example of what we could expect over the next 5 days. Food and grappa was a big component of the trip, and I gained quite a bit of weight even though hubs said that I likely put on a lot of muscle in my thighs from the hill climbs. It’s hard to believe that you could build muscle in such a short time, but the one pair of jeans that I brought, ended up being very tight around my thighs when I slipped them on on the last night.

After lunch, we rode to our hotel and had our first taste of a big downhill. It was exhilarating! Another great reason having wheels that don’t roll fast is that I wanted to soak up as much of the breathtaking scenery as possible. As the wind was in my face, I was in awe at the beautiful waters of the Adriatic sea, the islands, the boats, the white stone houses with orange roofs, the lush green of the trees, all set against the big coastal hills. This would be my playground for next 5 days. Thankfully there weren’t too many on-coming cars.

Before dinner, hubs and I decided to check out the beach. We discovered that Croatia beaches are rocky beaches, or man made beaches, which means that lounge chairs are set out on slabs of poured concrete. We didn’t really see any sandy beaches on any of the islands we visited. But the water is crystal clear. If the temperature of the water had been warmer, I probably would have swam a lot more. This spot in Pučišća on Brač island would be the only time that I “swim” in the Adriatic sea.

Our hotel for the night was an old family palace. Although this trip was labelled as “Casual Inns”, I thought the accommodations were fantastic. This place was obviously unique, and I am not sure we would have found it on our own. Our welcome dinner was cozy, with my first taste of black risotto, a local dish made with squid ink. Our pre-dinner drinks was served in the courtyard by a very tall man. Hubby had told me that Croatians are tall, but this guy was unbelievably tall!

In the days to come, we experienced more great climbing, with the toughest climb on day 2. This was the one time that I did get into the van for a section of the ride because it was 5-6 km of climbing on a busier and very narrow road, with a 1 km section being a 12% climb. Before that section started, I had asked hubs if he thought I could do it, and he said that I could, but that I might not enjoy it. Based on the time cap to reach the next point – about 45 minutes to an hour – I opted to take the van. I was told that they would drop me off at the next point and I could climb the final 5 km to the peak of Vidova Gora the highest peak on the island of Brač, rising 778 m (2,552 ft) above the sea. This was the first time that I had to ride without hubs. Up until this point, I followed him, but now I had to read the directions on my own. Luckily there were not too many turnoffs. On my own, I climbed higher and higher through the pine forest. From the top, I was once again in awe at the sweeping 360-degree views. We were able to spot the town at the base, which was where we were headed. As I was getting ready to head back down, with a heavy heart that hubby wasn’t going to have a chance to see this (I had been told by Jenna that Jerica picked him up because he ran out of time), but as I turn around hubby is standing before me! Turns out that Jerica had let him continue riding the whole way, but she had warned him that he wouldn’t have much rest time. I was so incredibly proud of my hubs. As soon as he dismounted, he got into the Asian squat position because his thighs were cramping. And as he walked over to me, I had to hold him up so that he wouldn’t tumble over the edge. Hubs is not a quitter. He did it! Words cannot describe how incredibly happy I was for him. The first thing he said to me was, “You made the right decision to get into the van.” His reward, a long downhill where he waited for me. But on the next uphill, he fell back and told me to chase down Jenna and he’d catch up. I didn’t see him for a while on my descent, so at some point when I finally found a cutout on the side of the switchbacks, I stopped. I needed to know that he was ok because I knew that his legs were tired. About 7 minutes later, he appears as a dot on the previous switchback. He had stopped earlier to eat his snacks. We ride into the town of Bol together.

Everyday started the same. Our alarm goes off at 6:45, which is waaay too early for me. We go for breakfast and we have to ensure our luggage is packed and waiting in front of our room door by 8:00, which is the time we have to all meet up to discuss the cycling route for the day, and then we’re off! This trip involved four boat rides. I managed to survive all of them. On the boat trip that happened after a morning of riding, I think everyone managed to fall asleep on the rooftop deck of our private boat. The deck chairs were comfortable, and the sun was warm. In the open waters, it can get breezy, but I wouldn’t describe it as really cold; however, for the the Brazilians and Mexicans, it was freezing. One of the girls even put on her down jacket, and she teased me and hubs about being true Canadians as we continued to lay out in our shorts and sandals.

Each location where we spent the night on the various islands had a different feel. Brač, specifically Pučišća, was very small and remote feeling. It’s a place where you want to be if you are looking to get away from hoards of tourists whereas Hvar Town on Hvar is lively and known as a party town. Girls here had lean bodies, and they weren’t too shy to show off their legs with super short skirts. Vela Luka on Korčula is a small waterfront town, with part of the water’s edge lined with little shops and restaurants. It’s not sleepy like Hvar, but it’s much less hip than Hvar.

It’s really tough for me to say which was my favourite day of riding. The descent on day 1 into Pučišća was so much fun. We climbed that long descent the next day. Day 2 had the climb up to Vidova Gora. It was my first time riding alone and that was a confidence booster. Day 3 had a great climb right from the start and I felt so proud of myself when I made it to the top. The scenery was different, with a section known as Venice because of all the bridges. We also stopped for gelato, and who doesn’t like gelato on a hot day? Day 4 had some good climbs, and wicked downhills. I remember looking at my speedometer and I had hit 58 km/hr! The final stretch was tough only because it was the first time we had encountered head wind. Day 5, the final ride day, was like a race for me and hubs. We wanted to do the long option and needed to ensure we’d make the cut-off time. We were the only ones that did the additional 19 km, and I’m glad we did. I didn’t want to stop riding!

Overall, the thing that made this Backroads trip so special was the unique places we stopped at and the places we would dine at. As we sat in the tiny courtyard of Tony’s home, where he and his son and some of their friends sang Klapa to us while we feasted on a delicious family-style meal, hubs and I knew that we would not be sitting here if we had come to Croatia on our own. And this was the same feeling we had with almost every lunch/dinner that we shared with our group. I also liked that each of the accommodations had something unique about it – like a shower that felt like it was in the middle of the room! All of this was just icing on the cake. The most important thing was that the bike routes were mapped out for us were great. The road conditions were excellent, and you could always count on the leaders to be keeping an eye out to ensure your safety. The three leaders had every detail under control, and they ran the trip flawlessly. Everything was taken care of. This was our first organized trip, and I can say with confidence that I will do another cycling trip with Backroads.

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